When the
war
is over

In another life, Ben Roberts-Smith VC was a war hero – the ‘man mountain’ whose bravery in Afghanistan earned him a Victoria Cross. Today he’s a UQ graduate and General Manager of Seven Network Queensland. From the outside, his transition to the corporate world has been swift, but he knows all too well that for many former soldiers the battles go on forever.

It’s 3am on a spring night in 2013 and Ben Roberts-Smith is wide awake.

After 18 years in the military, he’s seen the horrors of war.

As a patrol commander in the Special Air Service (SAS), he led men into battle. Hell, he was awarded a Victoria Cross for Australia for his actions during a bloody assault in Afghanistan in June 2010.

But now, a different type of battle keeps him up at night.

This time, he’s on a mission that will change his life forever – he’s fighting for his family, and he’s terrified.

Ben Roberts-Smith at UQ's St Lucia campus.

Roberts-Smith (Master of Business Administration ’16) swapped his camouflage uniform for a business suit in October 2013, retiring from the military as the most highly decorated member of the Australian Defence Force at that time.

Looking back today, the 38-year-old admits it was the most frightening decision he’d ever made.

“My first year out of the military was terrifying,” the two-metre-tall former Corporal told Contact.

“From the day I left school, every second Thursday I received a pay cheque. Then all of a sudden, that money stopped.

“I had taken a year off and was trying to work out what was next. Not only did I not really know what I wanted to do, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to feed my kids.”

On retirement from the military, Roberts-Smith moved to Brisbane from the Perth headquarters of the SAS with his wife, Emma, and their twin daughters, Eve and Elizabeth.

Using the skills he’d developed over almost two decades in the military, he set up a management consultancy, advising organisations such as PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Seven Network Queensland on corporate culture, strategic restructuring and change management.

“My SAS unit was probably one of the most high-performing teams in Australia. It had to be: if you’re part of that team and you make a mistake, people could die,” Roberts-Smith said.

“I had an insightful methodology around how to achieve team success, and that’s predominantly what I was doing at that point.

“I didn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t. I couldn’t consult on a business level because I wasn’t a businessman. But I could talk about culture.”

It’s been a rapid rise for Roberts-Smith since transitioning to civilian life.

In 2015, following his consultancy with Seven Network Queensland, he was offered the position of Deputy General Manager and was appointed General Manager six months later, replacing the retiring Neil Mooney.

“I was shocked because I knew nothing about the television industry,” Roberts-Smith said.

“Neil said to me, ‘Mate, I can teach you television, but I can’t teach character. And character is what you have in spades’."

“I decided this was what it was all about. I’d been given an opportunity to learn something, and wasn’t going to find a better teacher than someone who’d been in the game for more than 40 years.”

Ben Roberts-Smith VC at his graduation ceremony in December 2016.

If the pressure of starting a new career at the top wasn’t enough, Roberts-Smith was also completing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at UQ.

Graduating in December last year, he became Australia’s first enlisted Victoria Cross recipient to complete a degree after receiving the honour.

He said he felt the pressure to succeed in his studies to smooth the path for his former military colleagues.

“I needed to do well because I was representing my colleagues, and I needed to balance study with my family, work and charity commitments,” Roberts-Smith said.

“To have succeeded at something doesn’t take away from the fact that I went through fear of failure like everyone else, and that fear is what really drove me not to fail.

“I likened it to passing the selection course for the SAS – I put a lot of effort into it and I’ve been rewarded with a degree, and that’s something anyone would be proud of.”

UQ offered Roberts-Smith a scholarship to study his MBA with a view to setting up a program to support other elite SAS soldiers transitioning to a corporate career.

“I joined the army at 18 so I hadn’t gone to university for a bachelor’s degree and I didn’t have the base level of business knowledge because there were many things I just hadn’t been exposed to,” he said.

“The best thing about the MBA was it taught me what I did know.

“You don’t fully comprehend how much you have been given through military service and so you’re able to give back to the course.”

UQ MBA Program Director Dr Sarah Jane Kelly said Roberts-Smith had done very well in the course and had brought a unique perspective to his fellow students.

“The other students really benefited from his insights into character, leadership and strategy,” she said.

“We value servicemen and women in our program and are proud to offer support. As a result of Ben’s enrolment we have since attracted several former SAS, military and air force students to the program.”

UQ is now one of two universities in Australia providing scholarships through the Wandering Warriors program, a fundraising initiative of the Australian SAS Association to help veterans seeking a new direction through mentoring, education and employment opportunities.

Roberts-Smith is the patron of Wandering Warriors, as well as the White Cloud Foundation, which aims to help increase resources and improve access to support for people, families and carers who live with depression.

He holds leadership roles in several charities, including as Deputy Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council for Veterans’ Mental Health, and is a National Ambassador for Legacy, among other roles.

“One of the attributes particularly pertinent to the SAS is that you have guys who can assimilate information very quickly and apply it with relevance, and that is what you are selected for,” Roberts-Smith said.

“The misconception about SAS soldiers is that we’re all big and burly, and we’re selected on being fit. That couldn’t be further from the truth."

“Soldiers are selected for their mental stamina and resolve, and those characteristics come in handy when completing a degree.”

Ben Roberts-Smith on patrol as an SAS soldier. Image: Australian Defence Force

War has always fascinated Roberts-Smith. He is a fourth-generation soldier and his ancestors have served in every Australian conflict since the Boer War.

“From the day I read my first book about Gallipoli, I wanted to be a soldier,” he said.

“I wanted to know what it felt like. I wanted to know why those old blokes would sit together on Anzac Day and tell stories, and why no one else understood that sense of camaraderie. And I wanted to serve.”

Roberts-Smith joined the Australian Army in 1996 and completed the SAS selection course in 2003. He served in East Timor, Fiji, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, and was awarded the Medal for Gallantry in 2006.

His life changed forever on 11 June 2010.

A troop of the Special Operations Task Group conducted a helicopter assault into Tizak, in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Their mission was to capture or kill a senior Taliban commander.

Here he took part in an assault against an enemy fortification, exposing his own position in order to draw fire away from members of his patrol who were pinned down. Fighting at close range, the Corporal stormed two enemy machine-gun posts and silenced them.

Roberts-Smith was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. His citation in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette noted that “his selfless actions in circumstances of great peril served to enable his patrol to break into the enemy’s defences and to regain the initiative... resulting in a tactical victory”.

“I was part of a group of Australian soldiers who went through one of the most intense battles of the war in Afghanistan,” Roberts-Smith recalled.

“All those men were awarded a Battle Honour, which is the highest collective award for gallantry a soldier can receive.

“Without question, some of the acts I witnessed that day were worthy of Victoria Crosses.

“That Victoria Cross represents what we all did. All I had that day was opportunity, and if anyone else from that group was in that position they would have done exactly the same thing."

“That’s the really short version of a 13-hour-long battle.”

Roberts-Smith said the thing he missed about the military was the camaraderie.

“Every day you’re with the boys, and you have a role,” he said.

“You are all passionate, you are all highly motivated, everyone is mission-focused and believes in what they’re doing. It’s a great environment to be part of.”

Roberts-Smith was presented with his Victoria Cross in January 2011 and, after many months on the publicity circuit, returned to Afghanistan as a patrol commander.

“Doing that job meant more to me at that time than anything else in my career. I was in a position where I was able to prove to myself that I could lead in combat. To be in battle and make the right decisions and keep my guys alive. I got to achieve the goal I set at the start of my career, and not everyone gets to do that,” he said.

The question for Roberts-Smith was: what’s next?

“It’s hard to explain to people that you’ve lived your dream,” he said.

“Many times during my MBA, the class would talk about their aspirations and dreams and how we’d achieve them, and I would tell people that I’ve actually done that.”

He said the harsh reality for many soldiers, much like professional athletes, was the limited amount of time they had to achieve their career goals, due to age and the physical demands of the job.

“It’s actually the catalyst for many of the social issues veterans face,” he said.

“You lose your focus. Without an education to support a new goal, you start to lose your sense of self-worth, your motivation, and that’s when you start to see issues such as suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse."

“All those things are symptoms of somebody’s service. But they can be mitigated by empowering veterans to find employment or re-educate themselves.

“It’s important that people understand what has happened here at UQ. It’s the beginning of what can be a significant part of helping veterans transition to civilian life.”

Roberts-Smith hopes to use his profile to lead the way for the thousands of Australian veterans struggling to adjust to life outside the military.

Ben Roberts-Smith VC in his role at General Manager of Seven Network Queensland.

His aim now is winning the TV ratings war, while at the same time driving the innovation that is taking Seven Network Queensland to the top in commercial revenue.

“I’m proud and humbled to be one of the 100 Australians awarded a Victoria Cross, but I don’t want to be forever defined by my military career,” he said.

“Everyone wants to talk about what happened on one day. I’m proud of that day because of what we achieved as a group. But I do not want to be that guy who sits around at bars and talks to people about his Victoria Cross."

“I’d like to think that people who work with me recognise that I’m a good operator. The important thing to me is I’m getting taken on face value, and people are assessing me on what I’m doing now.”

“I know very clearly that life can change in an instant, so when you have the opportunity to make the most out of life, then you have to take it.

“I’m trying to prove that in my current job. The Seven Network gave me a chance and I’m trying to do what I can every day to better the organisation.”

To learn more about Wandering Warriors, visit wanderingwarriors.org.